One of the more infamous streaks in tennis finally came to an end this week, as Peng Shuai won her maiden WTA title on home soil in Tianjin, defeating American Alison Riske, 7-6(3), 6-2.
The 30-year-old turned professional in 2001, and her longevity on court was previously matched only by her futility in WTA finals: a runner-up on six other occasions, the former World No. 14 was long considered the best player without a WTA singles title to her credit (though she did with a WTA 125 Series event in 2014), despite having a champion’s pedigree. Peng’s path to her first career title was with the deck stacked against her: ranked No. 182 in the world coming into the tournament following a lengthy layoff after back surgery, the 2014 US Open semifinalist returned to the tour earlier this year with middling results in singles — before upsetting Venus Williams last week in Beijing for her best win since reaching the final four in Flushing.
While she finally got to hear her name announced as champion, Peng’s winning week on home soil — which included a rain-delayed, two-day semifinal against 2015 runner-up Danka Kovinic — was not the first time that she’s defied the odds in her tennis career.
After taking up the sport at the age of 8, Peng was not yet a teenager when she underwent surgery to fix a heart defect, when many told her she might not play again — a trying moment in her young life that she chronicled nearly a decade ago in an “Impossible is Nothing” campaign for Adidas.
“A lot of people thought…I wouldn’t come back to tennis after an operation.”
“Maybe because I love tennis so much, I decided to [do it].”
Nearly two decades later, Peng found herself in a nearly-identical position — albeit with a lot more tennis in her rearview mirror.
Over the course of her career, Peng’s collected 12 singles wins over Top 10 players, reached the second week at three out of the four Grand Slams and represented her country at two Summer Olympics. Known too for her doubles prowess, Peng captured two Grand Slam titles alongside Hsieh Su-wei and became the first Chinese player, male or female, to ascend to World No. 1 when she reached the ranking in doubles in February of 2014. Her run to the US Open semifinals in 2014 was the stuff dreams are made of, as she upset three seeds — Agnieszka Radwanska, Roberta Vinci and Lucie Safarova — en route without dropping a set — only to see it end in a nightmare. She was overcome by heat illness on a sweltering day in Flushing against Caroline Wozniacki, collapsed on court, was forced to retire late in the second set and was taken off court in a wheelchair.
Peng looked on course to return to the world’s Top 20 after reaching the second week of the Australian Open to begin her 2015 season, but after missing two and a half months with a back injury — only to return briefly for the clay court season and retire while trailing Polona Hercog 0-6, 0-2 in the first round of Roland Garros — she made the decision to have surgery. Peng returned to competitive tennis in Shenzhen in January, reaching the quarterfinals in doubles, but her return to singles had to wait until Indian Wells thanks to an untimely hand fracture.
Seven months after her return to competitive singles, ranked outside the world’s Top 200 and a wildcard entry into Beijing, Peng already assured herself one of the feel-good stories of the season in defeating the elder Williams for the first time in three meetings.
After the win, Peng proved to be just as perceptive about her place in the sport following a second major surgery as she was in her youth — with the sage wisdom that nearly two decades on tour provides.
In many ways, her unlikely triumph in the city where she’s now based is the tennis version of….
(wait for it….)
This has a point, I promise: both Peng and Leonardo DiCaprio entered decorated in their professions with talks of “when, not if” they’d be rewarded for what they do, but saw others reach the summit before they did.
Peng’s “best to never” peers including Elena Vesnina, Kaia Kanepi and Sloane Stephens all got to lift their maiden trophy before her, while DiCaprio had to sit there and pretend to be happy for Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker and Matthew McConaughey on previous Oscar nights.
In addition, neither were crowned at the height of their powers.
In Tianjin, Peng benefitted from two walkovers from Zhang Shuai and top seed Radwanska earlier in the tournament, ensuring she only needed to “win” three matches, while DiCaprio technically played second fiddle to a fake bear. (This is the truth; don’t @ me.)
However, the end results proved to be an overall good for humanity and their respective industries.
The Asian swing, since it took its present shape nearly 10 years ago, has long been criticized as a misstep in the tennis calendar. With players ofter exhausted after the grind of a long season, these tournaments can be plagued by a rash of withdrawals and retirements, surprising results and sparse numbers of fans in stadiums — in a region where tennis fandom, despite the successes of Li Na and others like Zheng Jie, Yan Zi and Peng, is still in its infancy. Coupling this annual narrative with #2016, and this year’s Asian swing was now tasked with closing out the most trying season the sport’s seen in recent memory.
Caught between that rock and a hard place, “more of the same” seemed to be the refrain for last leg of this tennis season — until Peng took matters into her own hands. A maiden singles trophy wasn’t the only one she lifted either, as she also partnered Christina McHale to win her 20th career doubles title.
Tennis has been starved for something to smile about, and the woman who’s been fighting for the love of the sport since she first picked up a racket gave us all just that.